Expert Commentary

U.S. Air Force: A Return to Full Spectrum Readiness

Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Deptula
Dean, Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies

The core missions of the U.S. Air Force demand that it always be prepared to defend the United States while also being prepared to carry out operations anywhere in the world. Perhaps more than any other service branch, this requires maintaining a technological edge over adversaries. In The Cipher Brief’s review coverage, we look at how the USAF manages the dual challenges of maintaining readiness for the present and the future.

The Cipher Brief: What is the state of Air Force readiness right now, and what are the key challenges, such as bureaucratic, technical, structural, standing in the way of improving readiness?

David Deptula: The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has been at war not just since 9/11, but since 1991.  After 25 years of continuous combat operations, coupled with budget instability and lower-than-planned top lines, have made the USAF the oldest, smallest, and least ready it has ever been in its history. The average USAF aircraft age is 27 years—the youngest B-52 is over 50 years old. Going into Operation Desert Storm, the USAF had over 530,000 active duty personnel, today that number is 320,000—40 percent less, and the USAF has almost 60 percent fewer combat fighter squadrons today (55) than it did during the first Gulf War in 1991 (134).  Today, over 50 percent of USAF forces are not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight against near-peer capabilities posed by China or Russia.

The key challenge standing in the way of improving readiness is the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.  It has resulted in a disproportionate loss of USAF capability, because it hinders the Air Force’s role as America’s “first response force.”  The damage to readiness caused by the BCA and subsequent sequestration in 2013, means that the U.S. has a growing strategy-resource mismatch: a widening gap between what our leaders say they want to be able to accomplish, and what the nation’s USAF can actually accomplish. 

Sequestration was designed to be so irresponsible that Congress would prevent its implementation.  However, the danger is that because its consequences are not immediately visible, Congress is on a path to continue imposing resource constraints on the military that inhibit meeting the demands of our national security strategy.  Combat readiness doesn’t have a constituency—except for the entire nation— when fighting needs to be accomplished.  

TCB: What does the Air Force need to look like, in terms of composition, in order to face future threats and challenges?

DD: Force structure must be directly tied to our national security strategy.  There are two enduring tenets of that strategy that have stayed constant over the years.  One, that during peacetime we will maintain sufficient forces and capabilities to engage around the world to encourage peace and stability; and two, in the event we do need to fight, we will do so away from U.S. territory in a fashion that puts the other combatants’ value structures at risk. 

In order to be able to execute these tenets, all the services need a set of robust, capable, and ready forces to establish a rotational base sufficient to sustain operations to accomplish them.  To do that, the Air Force uses its “Air Expeditionary Force” (AEF) organization to maintain sufficient numbers of forces to engage around the world in peacetime and succeed in multiple war fights if called up to do so.  The AF requires ten AEFs to maintain a rotational base to engage around the world during peacetime, and historically has required approximately five AEFs to conduct a single major theater contingency.  Our national military strategy calls for the ability to effectively act in two separate theater contingencies at, or nearly, simultaneously.

The key to a sufficient Air Force is to ensure those ten AEFs are each structured, equipped, and equal in capability and capacity for each of the USAF’s future core mission areas: Adaptive Domain Control; Global Integrated Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Rapid Global Mobility, Global Precision Strike, Multi-domain Command and Control.  Today, the USAF is short the force structure to meet these goals. 

Here is what the recently released USAF Air Superiority Flight Plan says about the path it is on: “The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against the array of potential adversary capabilities.”  While it is beyond the scope of this article to specify the entirety of future USAF force structure requirements, the USAF needs a minimum, one combat coded squadron of new bombers per AEF (120 combat coded; 184 total), and seven combat coded squadrons of fighters per AEF (1680 combat coded; 2469 total) to meet the goals of the national security strategy.

TCB: How does the Air Force’s readiness needs differ from other branches of the armed services?

DD: The USAF has always focused on being 100 percent ready at all times in order to provide rapid response to any crisis around the world, and if necessary, act as a precursor to further joint/coalition action.  Being in a posture to deploy and employ quickly, creates capabilities that meet the two enduring tenets of our national security strategy.  In order to be able to accomplish these strategic objectives, the USAF needs a set of robust, capable, and ready forces with a rotational base sufficient to sustain operations.

The variety of missions and short-notice deployment capability of USAF units requires a constant dedication to full spectrum readiness vice the tiered readiness of other services.  A core characteristic of the USAF is that its forces can be called upon to respond in a matter of minutes or hours—not weeks or months—to execute any mission from airlift for disaster response to nuclear strike, and everything in-between, within the capabilities of the people and materiel of a particular unit. This quickness buys the Navy, Marines, and Army time to spin up and steam to a fight. 

The USAF makes this process more predictable for long-term rotational deployments using its AEF structure, but since 2001, USAF missions have been conducted in permissive air environments. A unit training for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE will focus on the missions required to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, such as unopposed surface attack and close air support, but must retain capability to conduct higher-end missions, such as offensive/defensive counter-air, strategic attack, and suppression of enemy air defenses, to be ready for other possible contingencies. Our defense strategy dependence on the rapid response of USAF airpower requires a sufficient and consistent readiness posture that cannot take a break.

TCB: How has the Air Force responded to the challenge of maintaining readiness during a tight fiscal environment, and are there sacrifices that must be made in this type of environment?

DD: First, it is important to understand the severe impact of the 2013 sequestration.  Any USAF activities not directly involved in current operations were brought to an immediate halt. The USAF grounded 31 squadrons, cancelled graduate-level weapons instructor courses, and halted depot repairs.  Although sequestration shut off readiness like a light switch, rebuilding readiness has been more akin to rewiring the house.  Squadrons had to start from scratch to rebuild baseline currencies, person by person, before conducting more advanced training in preparation for deployments or exercises.  Many of these squadrons were not able to conduct high-end training due to impending Middle East deployments.  Individuals in these squadrons would have gone over a year without any high-end training; six-months of grounding; three months of reconstitution and deployment preparation; and four to six months of deployment. At the same time, aircraft availability decreased as many stood grounded in a backlog awaiting mandatory inspections at depot.  The USAF recognized this readiness challenge and has invested in recovery by funding flying hour programs to their maximum executable level, and increased the number of Red Flag exercises per year.  Despite this focus and investment, and a decrease in personnel, less than 50 percent of the USAF is ready for the full spectrum of operations.

The USAF has sacrificed capacity and investments in future readiness in an attempt to meet the current readiness demands.  Programs to reduce end strength resulted in the separation of roughly 20,000 Airmen since 2013.  This produced a higher operations tempo and lower quality of life for remaining personnel.  Reduced investments in upkeep and upgrades for training ranges have decreased the quality of full spectrum training and may prevent a future USAF from the ability to conduct realistic training.  

Future full spectrum readiness requires improved equipment to meet the complex threats being developed and proliferated among potential adversaries.  However, the BCA has forced the USAF to trade modernization against readiness.  It is the only place the USAF could go for funding, and it is putting our ability to modernize over time at risk.  For example, the FY17 budget request defers the purchase of 45 F-35As over the next five years to a later date.  This reduces the capacity of the USAF by roughly two full squadrons of 5th generation fighters that will now be unavailable for any near-term contingency against growing threat capabilities.

The potential impact of the BCA in FY18 are all bad choices:

  • force structure cuts—the USAF is already too small for the current demand placed on it;
  • delay modernization—the USAF capability advantage is already shrinking;
  • halt readiness recovery—this would result in a USAF even less ready than it is today;
  • defer advancements in space and cyber—the USAF is being seriously contested in these domains;
  • reduce spending on infrastructure—base support would suffer and the bow wave of needed improvement would grow.

The USAF is already too small and less capable than necessary to meet the needs of the current national security strategy.  This point does not just apply to the Air Force, but to each of the services.  That said, a concerted focus on expanding our air and space forces would serve America well, as they are uniquely positioned to underpin a defense strategy appropriate to deal with a future of threats growing in both capacity and capability.  Finally, it is important to remember that the only thing more expensive than a first rate Air Force is a second rate Air Force.

Lieutenant General (Ret.) David A. Deptula was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001; joint task force commander (twice); and air commander for the 2005 South Asia tsunami relief.  He is a fighter pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours - 400 in combat - including multiple command assignments in the F-15. During his last assignment as the... Read More

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